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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of Jeremiah Joseph “Ginger” O’Connell, Irish Revolutionary

Jeremiah Joseph “Ginger” O’Connell, Irish revolutionary, active in the Irish War of Independence, and later a senior officer in the Defence Forces, is born in Ballina, County Mayo, on December 21, 1887.

O’Connell is born to Jeremiah Ambrose and Winifred O’Connell. He is nicknamed “Ginger” because of his red hair. His father is a national school inspector, so the family lives in Sligo, Derry, Longford and Belfast, and he attends a succession of primary schools. He studies at University College Dublin (UCD) where he receives a BA and a first class MA. He is a member of the Literary and Historical Society at UCD, and has an interest in boxing.

O’Connell is living in Cavan with his father, his sister Mary Margaret, his brother John Aloysius and two servants, Mary Burke and Rose Anne O’Reilly, at the time of the 1911 census, when he is 23. He is working as a Solicitor’s Apprentice, can read and write as well as speak both English and Irish, and is single. His mother is not living as it is recorded that his father is a widower.

O’Connell spends some time in the United States Army, serving with the 69th New York Infantry Regiment between 1912 and 1914. He returns to Ireland in 1914 and joins the Irish Volunteers, becoming Chief of Inspection in 1915. He travels the country organising volunteer corps, as well as contributing to the Irish Volunteer’s journal and delivering lectures on military tactics to both the Volunteers and Fianna Éireann. He also delivers a series of lectures about the famous Irish battles to the Gaelic League in Dublin. He is not a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) as he believes that soldiers should not be a part of secret societies.

At the time the 1916 Easter Rising, O’Connell is operating in Dublin under instruction from Joseph Plunkett. He is dispatched to Cork by Eoin MacNeill to try to prevent the Rising. Following the Rising, he is arrested and held in Frongoch internment camp from April to July 1916. In 1918 he is again arrested and interned, spending time in Wandsworth Prison with Arthur Griffith for the alleged involvement in the fabricated German Plot.

During the Irish War of Independence, O’Connell is a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) headquarters staff, as Assistant Director of Training and, after the killing of Dick McKee in 1920, as Director of Training. He coordinates, and is the principal lecturer, for a training course for military officers. The course is run clandestinely in the premises of the Topographical Society on Gardiner Street in Dublin. A sympathetic doorkeeper allows the group in at night when the society is not present. Topics delivered by O’Connell include tactics, ordinance and engineering.

In the IRA split after Dáil Éireann ratifies the Anglo-Irish Treaty, O’Connell takes the pro-Treaty side. He is made Deputy Chief of Staff in the National Army. On June 26, 1922, he is kidnapped by anti-treaty forces in reprisal for the arrest of an anti-treaty officer. His kidnapping is a precipitating factor in the formal outbreak of the Irish Civil War, when government pro-treaty forces two days later attack anti-treaty forces occupying the Four Courts. He survives the fighting and spends the rest of the civil war as General Officer Commanding the Curragh Command.

Following the Irish Civil War, the National Army is reorganised, and as part of that O’Connell is demoted from general to colonel. He subsequently holds a variety of positions: chief lecturer in the army school of instruction (1924–1929); director of no. 2 (intelligence) bureau (1929–1932); OC Irish Army Equitation School (March–June 1932); quartermaster-general (1932–1935) and director of the military archives (1935–1944). He also publishes articles on Irish and foreign military history and tactics in his time as a military historian. He marries Gertrude McGilligan, and they have two children together – one son and one daughter.

O’Connell dies of a heart attack at the age of 56 on February 19, 1944.


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Birth of Dermot Healy, Novelist, Playwright, Poet & Short Story Writer

Dermot Healy, Irish novelist, playwright, poet and short story writer, is born in Finnea, County Westmeath, on November 9, 1947. A member of Aosdána, he is also part of its governing body, the Toscaireacht. He is described variously as a “master,” a “Celtic Hemingway” and as “Ireland’s finest living novelist.”

Healy is the son of a Guard. As a child the family moves to Cavan, where he attends the local secondary school. In his late teens he moves to London and works in a succession of jobs, including barman, security man and as a labourer. He later returns to Ireland, settling in Ballyconnell, County Sligo, a small settlement on the Atlantic coast.

Often overlooked due to his relatively low public profile, Healy’s work is admired by his Irish literary predecessors, peers and successors alike, many of whom idolise him. Among the writers to have spoken highly of him are Seamus Heaney, Eugene McCabe, Roddy Doyle, Patrick McCabe and Anne Enright.

Healy’s work is influenced by an eclectic range of writers from around the world, including Anna Akhmatova, John Arden, Isaac Babel, Matsuo Bashō, Samuel Beckett, Jorge Luis Borges, Angela Carter, J. M. Coetzee, Emily Dickinson, Maria Edgeworth, T. S. Eliot, Hermann Hesse, Nâzım Hikmet, Aidan Higgins, Miroslav Holub, Eugène Ionesco, Franz Kafka, Mary Lavin, Federico García Lorca, Guy de Maupassant, Edgar Allan Poe, Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound, William Shakespeare and Robert Louis Stevenson. Healy writes in a shed and is fascinated by etymology. However, on being a writer, he is quoted as saying, “I know writing is what I do but I still don’t see myself as one.”

Healy is longlisted for the Booker Prize with his novel A Goats Song. He wins the Hennessy Literary Award (1974 and 1976), the Tom-Gallon Trust Award (1983), and the Encore Award (1995). In 2011, he is shortlisted for the Poetry Now Award for his 2010 poetry collection, A Fool’s Errand. Long Time, No See is nominated for the International Dublin Literary Award, the world’s most valuable literary award for a single work in the English language, by libraries in Russia and Norway.

Healy dies at his home in Ballyconnell on June 29, 2014, while awaiting an ambulance after suddenly being taken ill. He is laid to rest at Carrigans Cemetery following funeral mass by Fr. Michael Donnelly at St. Patrick’s Church in Maugherow.


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Death of Owen Roe O’Neill, Member of the O’Neill Dynasty of Ulster

Owen Roe O’Neill, Gaelic Irish soldier and one of the most famous of the O’Neill dynasty of Ulster, dies on November 6, 1649 at the O’Reilly stronghold of Cloughoughter Castle located on an island in Lough Oughter in County Cavan.

O’Neill is the illegitimate son of Art MacBaron O’Neill, a younger brother of Hugh O’Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone, who holds lands in County Armagh. His mother is the daughter of Aodh Conallach O’Raghallaigh, the chief of Breifne O’Reilly in County Cavan.

As a young man O’Neill leaves Ireland, one of the ninety-nine involved in the Flight of the Earls escaping the English conquest of his native Ulster. He grows up in the Spanish Netherlands and spends 40 years serving in the Irish regiment of the Spanish army. He sees most of his combat in the Eighty Years’ War against the Dutch Republic in Flanders, notably at the Siege of Arras, where he commands the Spanish garrison. He also distinguishes himself in the Franco-Spanish War by holding out for 48 days with 2,000 men against a French army of 35,000.

O’Neill is, like many Gaelic Irish officers in the Spanish service, very hostile to the English Protestant presence in Ireland. In 1627, he is involved in petitioning the Spanish monarchy to invade Ireland using the Irish Spanish regiments. He proposes that Ireland be made a republic under Spanish protection to avoid in-fighting between Irish Catholic landed families over which of them would provide a prince or king of Ireland. This plot comes to nothing. However in 1642, He returns to Ireland with 300 veterans to aid the Irish Rebellion of 1641.

The subsequent war, known as the Irish Confederate Wars, is part of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, civil wars throughout Britain and Ireland. Because of his military experience, O’Neill is recognised on his return to Ireland in July 1642, at Doe Castle in County Donegal, as the leading representative of the O’Neills and head of the Ulster Irish. Sir Phelim O’Neill resigns the northern command of the Irish rebellion in his favour and escorts him from Lough Swilly to Charlemont.

Jealousy between the kinsmen is complicated by differences between O’Neill and the Catholic Confederation which meet at Kilkenny in October 1642. O’Neill professes to be acting in the interest of Charles I, but his real aim is the complete Independence of Ireland as a Roman Catholic country, while the Old English Catholics represented by the council desire to secure religious liberty and an Irish constitution under the crown of England. More concretely, O’Neill wants the Plantation of Ulster overturned and the recovery of the O’Neill clan’s ancestral lands. Moreover, he is unhappy that the majority of Confederate military resources are directed to Thomas Preston‘s Leinster army. Preston is also a Spanish veteran but he and O’Neill have an intense personal dislike of each other.

Although O’Neill is a competent general, he is outnumbered by the Scottish Covenanter army that lands in Ulster in 1642. Following a reverse at Clones, he has to abandon central Ulster and is followed by thousands of refugees, fleeing the retribution of the Scottish soldiers for some atrocities against Protestants in the rebellion of 1641. He does his best to stop the killings of Protestant civilians, for which he receives the gratitude of many Protestant settlers. From 1642–1646 a stalemate exists in Ulster, which he uses to train and discipline his Ulster Army. This poorly supplied force nevertheless gains a very bad reputation for plundering and robbing friendly civilians around its quarters in northern Leinster and southern Ulster.

In 1646 O’Neill, with substantial Gallowglass numbers and additionally furnished with supplies by the Papal Nuncio, Giovanni Battista Rinuccini, attacks the Scottish Covenanter army under Major-General Robert Monro, who had landed in Ireland in April 1642. On June 5, 1646 O’Neill utterly routs Monro at the Battle of Benburb, killing or capturing up to 3,000 Scots. However after being summoned to the south by Rinuccini, he fails to take advantage of the victory, and allows Monro to remain unmolested at Carrickfergus.

In March 1646 a treaty is signed between James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond and the Catholics, which would have committed the Catholics to sending troops to aid the Royalist cause in the English Civil War. The peace terms however, are rejected by a majority of the Irish Catholic military leaders and the Catholic clergy including the Nuncio, Rinuccini. O’Neill leads his Ulster army, along with Thomas Preston’s Leinster army, in a failed attempt to take Dublin from Ormond. However, the Irish Confederates suffer heavy military defeats the following year at the hands of Parliamentarian forces in Ireland at Dungan’s Hill and Knocknanauss, leading to a moderation of their demands and a new peace deal with the Royalists. This time O’Neill is alone among the Irish generals in rejecting the peace deal and finds himself isolated by the departure of the papal nuncio from Ireland in February 1649.

So alienated is O’Neill by the terms of the peace the Confederates have made with Ormond that he refuses to join the Catholic/Royalist coalition and in 1648 his Ulster army fights with other Irish Catholic armies. He makes overtures for alliance to George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle, who is in command of the parliamentarians in the north, to obtain supplies for his forces, and at one stage even tries to make a separate treaty with the English Parliament against the Royalists in Ireland. Failing to obtain any better terms from them, he turns once more to Ormond and the Catholic confederates, with whom he prepares to co-operate more earnestly when Oliver Cromwell‘s arrival in Ireland in August 1649 brings the Catholic party face to face with serious danger.

Before, however, anything is accomplished by this combination, O’Neill dies on November 6, 1649 at the O’Reilly stronghold of Cloughoughter Castle located on an island in Lough Oughter in County Cavan. There is no clear evidence of the cause of death, with one belief being that he was poisoned by a priest, while others think it is more likely that he died from an illness resulting from an old wound. Under cover of night he is reputed to have been brought to the Franciscan abbey in Cavan town for burial. However some local tradition still suggests that it may have been at Trinity abbey located upon an island in Lough Oughter, which may be more likely given the logistics of his removal. His death is a major blow to the Irish of Ulster and is kept secret for some time.

The Catholic nobles and gentry meet in Ulster in March 1650 to appoint a commander to succeed O’Neill, and their choice is Heber MacMahon, Roman Catholic Bishop of Clogher, the chief organiser of the recent Clonmacnoise meeting. O’Neill’s Ulster army is unable to prevent the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, despite a successful defence of Clonmel by O’Neill’s nephew Hugh Dubh O’Neill and is destroyed at the Battle of Scarrifholis in County Donegal in 1650. Its remnants continue guerrilla warfare until 1653, when they surrender at Cloughoughter Castle in County Cavan. Most of the survivors are transported to serve in the Spanish Army.

In the nineteenth century, O’Neill is celebrated by the Irish nationalist revolutionaries, the Young Irelanders, who see him as an Irish patriot. Thomas Davis writes a famous song about O’Neill, titled “The Lament for Owen Roe” which is popularised in their newspaper, The Nation.

O’Neill has been commemorated in the names of several Gaelic Athletic Association clubs, including Middletown Eoghan Rua Gaelic Athletic Club in County Armagh; CLG Eoghan Rua in Coleraine; St. Oliver Plunketts/Eoghan Ruadh GAA in Dublin, and Brackaville Owen Roes GFC; Owen Roe O’Neill’s GAC in County Tyrone; and the defunct Benburb Eoghan Ruadh GAC.


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Birth of Singer Larry Cunningham

larry-cunninghamLarry Cunningham, Irish country music singer, who is one of the leading figures of the Irish showband scene in the 1960s and 1970s, is born in Clooneen, Mullinalaghta, County Longford on February 13, 1938. He is regarded as a “trailblazer” and “legend” in the music industry.

Cunningham grows up in the townland of Clooneen in a farming family of seven children. After leaving school at the age of 16 he goes to England and works as a carpenter, playing Irish traditional music and gaelic football during his spare time. In 1958 he returns to Ireland. Still working as a carpenter, he soon joins the part-time Gowna-based Grafton Showband, but leaves it in 1961 to become fully professional as the lead singer of the Mighty Avons, based in Cavan. That band initially specialises in covers of Jim Reeves songs and similar country material.

The band’s first taste of fame comes when they are supporting Jim Reeves during the Irish leg of his European tour in 1963. When Reeves walks off the stage during a concert in Lifford in protest at the poor condition of the supplied piano, the Avons, as they later become popularly called, takes over and entertains the crowd, to much subsequent publicity and acclaim.

In December 1964, Cunningham and the Mighty Avons have a Top-10 hit with the song Tribute to Jim Reeves, which also enters the British charts and is played on Top of the Pops, both firsts for an Irish artist, which further boosted their career. Their major hit is Lovely Leitrim in September 1965, which stays at number one in the charts for four weeks. As well as regularly touring Ireland to large crowds, the Avons make many appearances on television, and often played in Britain, the United States, and other places.

In late 1969, Cunningham leaves the Mighty Avons and merges with Edenderry band The Fairways to form Larry Cunningham and the Country Blue Boys, leaving Gene Stuart to front the Avons. He continues having success with his new band, but after his marriage to Beatrice Nannery in February 1972 he gives up regular touring in favour of occasional concerts and recording. He continues to have top-10 hits until the mid-1970s, and still performs occasionally for the remainder of his life. In recent years, audio and video compilations of his music have been released, as well as a biography.

Larry Cunningham dies in Dublin on September 28, 2012, following a lengthy illness. Among those to pay tribute are U.S. country singer Robert Mizzell who says, “I am so saddened to hear of the passing of country legend Larry. I admired his talent and quick humour. My thoughts are with his family, friends, and the fans who loved the big deep voice that rattled the radio waves.”


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The Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits

The Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits takes place in County Fermanagh on August 7, 1594 when a force of English Army soldiers led by Sir Henry Duke is ambushed and defeated by an Irish force under Hugh Maguire and Cormac MacBaron O’Neill in the region of the fords of the Arney River on the approaches to Enniskillen.

The battle acquires its distinctive name due to the supplies of the Crown forces, largely hard biscuits, which are scattered and left floating in the river. The battle is an early exchange in the Nine Years’ War, and exposes the vulnerability of Crown forces to ambushes in the wilder parts of Ulster with its thick woods and bogs.

The relief force is under the joint command of Sir Henry Duke and Sir Edward Herbert, who have 600 infantrymen and 40 horses. Duke and Herbert believe this to be insufficient, and write to the Lord Deputy that “to go without a thousand men at the least or otherwise we shall dearly repent our going.” No reinforcements are forthcoming therefore the column sets north from Cavan on August 4. Burdened with supplies, the army is expected to take four days to march 29 miles north to Enniskillen. The night before the battle the English camp is pestered by Irish gunfire and incessant skirmishing which causes the English troops to be poorly rested when the set out on August 7 to relieve the beleaguered garrison. As the thin column starts to snake its way north, almost immediately it comes under attack on both flanks as Irish skirmishes hurl javelins, but this is not the main attack.

As the relief expedition approaches Enniskillen from the south, Maguire and Cormac MacBaron lay in wait for them on the Arney River. The Army’s cavalry scouts fail to detect the Irish laying in wait for them. The ground is boggy near the Arney ford, therefore they are forced to dismount. Consequently the infantry escorting the supply wagons for Enniskillen run straight into the ambush. Around eleven o’clock the head of the column approaches the ford. Without warning intense Irish gunfire tears into the lead English elements from concealed positions on the opposite bank. With the advance stalled, Maguire and MacBaron assail the rear of the column with the bulk of their forces. Wings of English shot deploy to skirmish with the Irish, but withering Irish fire pushes them back to their pike stands in the column.

The English rear falls into disorder causing the Irish pike and Scots mercenaries to charge, forcing them to flee pell mell onto the centre of the column. The English collapse continues as the column concertinaed towards the head of the army stalled at the ford. Fortunately the leading English pike has forced the crossing, pushing back the Irish shot, giving the English some room to reorder and regroup north of the river.

The English are engaged by Irish shot from the surrounding hills, but a counter-attack is stillborn when its leader, Captain Fuller, is killed. With most of the supplies abandoned at the river, Duke and Herbert decide their only option is to retreat. However, their retreat to the ford is met with renewed gunfire and the disintegrating army is compelled to cross on another ford an “arrow shot” upstream.

Luckily for Duke and Herbert’s men they are not pursued as most of the Irish have fallen to looting the baggage train which gives the battle its name, Béal-Átha-na-mBriosgadh or The Ford of the Biscuits.

The badly-mauled Crown forces retreat to Cavan. News of the defeats causes some alarm due to the small size of the peacetime Royal Irish Army, which is scattered in garrisons across the island. Although this can be supplemented by forces of loyal Gaelic chiefs, fresh troops need to be raised in England and sent across the Irish Sea to contain the developing northern rebellion. In addition a force of soldiers who have been serving in Brittany is brought to Ireland.

A second relief expedition, this time led by the Lord Deputy of Ireland William Russell, 1st Baron Russell of Thornhaugh, manages to reach Enniskillen and re-supply it. However Enniskillen does fall to the rebels in May of the following year and the garrison is massacred, despite having been promised their lives when they surrendered.

(Photo with permission by Dr.James O’Neill (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)


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The Cavan Orphanage Fire

cavan-orphanage-fireThe Cavan Orphanage fire occurs on the night of February 23, 1943 at St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Cavan, County Cavan. Thirty-five children and one adult employee die as a result. Much of the attention after the fire surrounds the role of the Poor Clares, the order of nuns who run the orphanage and the local fire service.

The Poor Clares, an enclosed contemplative order, found a convent in Cavan in 1861 in a large premises on Main Street. In 1868, they open an orphanage. At the time young petty criminals could be educated and learn a trade in a reformatory, however, orphaned and abandoned children are not accorded the same opportunity. The Industrial Schools Act 1868 seeks to address this by the establishment of the Industrial school system. In 1869, a school, attached to the convent, is established and becomes known as the St. Joseph’s Orphanage & Industrial School.

Fire breaks out in the early morning hours of February 23, 1943, in the basement laundry and is not noticed until about 2 AM. The subsequent investigation attributes the fire to a faulty flue. The sight of smoke coming out of the building alerts people on Main Street. They go to the front entrance and attempt to gain entry. Eventually they are let in by one of the girls but, not knowing the layout of the convent, they are unable to find the girls.

By this time all of the girls have been moved into one Dormitory. At this point it would have been possible to evacuate all of the children but instead the nuns persuade the local people to attempt to extinguish the fire. Two men, John Kennedy and John McNally, go down to the laundry to try to put the fire out. The flames are now too intense for this to be possible and McNally only survives by being carried out by Kennedy.

By now it is no longer possible for the girls to get out through the main entrance or the fire escape. The local fire brigade arrives but their equipment is not sufficient for the fire. Wooden ladders are not long enough to reach the dormitory windows. In the absence of any other solution, girls are encouraged to jump. Three do so, though with injuries, however most are too frightened to attempt it. A local electricity worker, Mattie Hand, arrives with a long ladder and a local man, Louis Blessing, brings five girls down. One child leaves by way of the interior staircase while it is still accessible. One child makes it down the exterior fire escape. One child escapes by way of a small ladder held on the roof of the shed. The fire completely engulfs the dormitory and the remaining girls perish.

cavan-orphanage-graveOver concerns about the causes of the fire and the standard of care, a Public Inquiry is set up. The report’s findings state that the loss of life occurs due to faulty directions being given, lack of fire-fighting training, and an inadequate rescue and fire-fighting service. It also notes inadequate training of staff in fire safety and evacuation, both at the orphanage and local fire service. This finding has been disputed by many. It is alleged that the nuns prevent firefighters from entering the building for fear that they might see the girls in a state of undress.

Due to the nature of the fire, the remains of the dead girls are placed in eight coffins and buried in Cullies cemetery in Cavan. A memorial plaque is erected in 2010 just inside the convent gates at Main Street, Cavan. The plaque is anonymously donated to the Friends of the Cavan Orphanage Victims group.

(Pictured lower right: The grave containing the remains of the 36 victims)


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Death of Irish Songwriter Percy French

percy-frenchPercy French, one of Ireland’s foremost songwriters and entertainers of his day, dies of pneumonia in Formby, England, on January 24, 1920.

French is born at Cloonyquin House, near Tulsk, County Roscommon. He is educated at Foyle College, Derry, and writes his first successful song, Abdul Abulbul Amir, while studying at Trinity College Dublin in 1877. The song is sold for £5 to an unscrupulous publisher and later becomes hugely popular and is falsely claimed by other authors.

He graduates from Trinity as a civil engineer in 1881 and joins the Board of Works in County Cavan as an “Inspector of Drains.” It is said that he writes his best songs during this period. French is also a prolific painter of landscape watercolours and during this period he considers art to be his true vocation. When he becomes well-known later in his life, his paintings from his time as a civil engineer become fashionable and sought after.

When the Board of Works reduces its staff around 1887, French turns to journalism as the editor of The Jarvey, a weekly comic paper. Upon the failure of the paper, French embarks on a long and successful career as a songwriter and entertainer. It is around this time that French marries Ethel Kathleen Armitage-Moore, second daughter of William Armytage-Moore, brother of Countess of Annesley. Tragically, at the age of 20, she dies during childbirth along with her daughter.

percy-french-statueFrench becomes renowned for composing and singing comic songs and gains considerable distinction with such songs as Phil the Fluther’s Ball, Slattery’s Mounted Foot, and The Mountains of Mourne. One of French’s most famous songs is Are Ye Right There Michael, a song that ridicules the state of the rail system in rural County Clare. The song causes such embarrassment to the rail company that it lead to an ultimately unsuccessful libel action against French. It is said that French arrives late for the libel hearing and, when questioned by the judge on his lateness, he responds, “Your honour, I travelled by the West Clare Railway,” which results in the case being thrown out.

French takes ill while performing in Glasgow and dies of pneumonia on January 24, 1920, at the age of 65 at the home of his cousin, Canon Richardson of Green Lea, in Formby. He is buried in the churchyard of St. Luke’s Parish Church, Formby in Merseyside. A statue of him sitting on a park bench can be found in the town center of Ballyjamesduff in honour of him and his famous song, Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff.